How is rabies treated?
The treatment for someone who has been exposed to rabies is a series of shots known as postexposure prophylaxis (PEP). These shots help the body's immune system destroy the disease in its early stages. Getting PEP before symptoms appear usually prevents infection, and you are likely to recover.
In the U.S. and Canada, PEP has two parts, usually given at the same time:
- A shot of human antibodies against rabies, called human rabies immunoglobulin (HRIG)
- The rabies vaccination series
Some vaccines that aren't approved for use in the U.S. or Canada are used in developing countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) approves of these vaccines.4 But they may cause worse reactions than newer vaccines. If you are exposed to rabies outside of the U.S. or Canada and have any choice, request HDCV (human diploid cell vaccine), RVA (rabies vaccine, adsorbed), or PCEC (purified chick embryo cell culture). If these aren't available, it is better to accept one of the other vaccines than to get no vaccine at all. As soon as you can return home, ask your doctor about whether you should get any more vaccines.
What should you do if you think you have been exposed to rabies?
First, wash the animal bite, scratch, or open sore with soap and water. Then call your doctor and local health department right away. They can advise you on what to do next.
If you've been bitten by or exposed to an animal at low risk for having rabies, such as a pet, the animal will be captured and watched for signs of rabies. If there's a chance that the animal is rabid, you will start getting shots right away.
If you've been bitten by or exposed to an animal at high risk for having rabies, you will start getting shots right away. If possible, the animal will be watched for signs of rabies or will be killed for testing. If it turns out that the animal doesn't have rabies, you can stop the shots.
If an animal shows signs of rabies but can't be captured for testing, it often is assumed to be rabid.